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A boy flies a homemade kite in the foreigners’ section of al-Hol camp in northeast Syria on March 15, 2021.
© 2021 Sam Tarling
Nearly 43,000 foreign men, women, and children linked to ISIS remain detained in inhuman or degrading conditions by regional authorities in northeast Syria, two years after they were rounded up during the fall of the Islamic State “caliphate,” often with the explicit or implicit consent of their countries of nationality, Human Rights Watch said today.
The foreign detainees have never been brought before a court, making their detention arbitrary as well as indefinite. They include 27,500 children, most in locked camps and at least 300 in squalid prisons for men, and scores of others in a locked rehabilitation center. The detainees suffer from rising levels of violence and falling levels of vital aid including medical care. In just one case, France has refused to allow a woman with advanced colon cancer to come home for treatment. One detained woman told Human Rights Watch that a guard ran over a young child in a vehicle, cracking his skull.
“Men, women, and children from around the world are entering a third year of unlawful detention in life-threatening conditions in northeast Syria while their governments look the other way,” said Letta Tayler, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should be helping to fairly prosecute detainees suspected of serious crimes and free everyone else, not helping to create another Guantanamo.”
Governments that actively contribute to this abusive confinement may be complicit in the unlawful detention and collective punishment of thousands of people, most of them women and young children, Human Rights Watch said.
In February and March 2021, Human Rights Watch communicated via text, email, or phone with eight foreign women detained in camps for family members of male ISIS suspects in northeast Syria as well as relatives of five camp detainees. Human Rights Watch also spoke or emailed with members of six aid organizations and six civil society groups pressing for the detainees’ repatriations, as well as regional authorities, Western government officials, UN officials, journalists, and academics. In addition, Human Rights Watch reviewed dozens of reports, media articles, and videos about the camps and prisons.
People interviewed described increasingly desperate mothers and children struggling to maintain dignity amid harsh conditions and fears of contracting Covid-19. Three women in one camp, Roj, said that guards confiscated Qurans, threatened women for wearing niqabs, and raided tents at night. Women caught with cellphones or suspected of withholding information about crimes in the camp were sometimes beaten and jailed for days or even weeks, the women and a relative said. The regional authority, called the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria, denied any abuse by guards and said that some women had attacked guards with stones and sharp objects. Badran Chia Kurd, Autonomous Administration’s deputy co-chair, told Human Rights Watch that women were in most cases jailed only for “a few days” if they tried to flee.=
One relative of a detainee said that her detained family member was suicidal. A young mother wrote that daily life in the camps made her want to “scream from the top of my lungs”:
It’s mentally exhausting. … never gets better here. Always worse. … majority of the children in the camp are sick. Almost everyday something bad happens. Children trapped in burning tents and dies. … We have water tank that contains worms. The toilets are dirty so people started to build [their] own toilets.
Like all detainees who communicated with Human Rights Watch, the women asked that they not be identified by name or nationality for fear of retaliation by other detainees or camp guards.
Holding the foreigners “is a huge burden” for the cash-strapped Autonomous Administration, Chia Kurd said. “The international community, in particular the countries who have citizens in the camps and prisons, are not assuming their responsibility. This issue, if not solved, will not only affect us, but the entire world.”
Countries with nationals held in northeast Syria should answer repeated appeals by the Autonomous Administration to help them provide detainees with due process, including the right to contest the legality and necessity of their detention before a judge. All detainees held in inhuman or degrading conditions, or who are not promptly charged with a recognizable criminal offense in fair proceedings should be immediately released.
Foreign countries should also comply with the Autonomous Administration’s repeated calls for them to repatriate detainees not charged with a crime, prioritizing the most vulnerable. Repatriated children should be accompanied by their parents in keeping with the child’s right to family unity. Foreigners facing risks at home of death or torture or other ill-treatment should be transferred to a safe third country.
Upon transfer home or abroad, detainees can be provided with rehabilitation and reintegration services and as warranted, investigated and prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said. Children who lived under ISIS and any women trafficked by ISIS should be treated first and foremost as victims, and children should face prosecution and detention only in exceptional circumstances.
In the meantime, foreign governments and donors should immediately increase aid to improve camp and prison conditions in northeast Syria and press the United Nations Security Council to reauthorize vital aid operations across Syria’s northeast and northwest borders to speed the delivery of aid.
Only 25 countries are known to have repatriated any nationals from northeast Syria and most have brought home or helped return only a token few, primarily orphans or young children, in some cases without their mothers.
The UN and donors, including many home countries of the foreign detainees, are providing humanitarian aid to the detainees and others in northeast Syria. But acute shortages of clean water, food, medicine, and adequate shelter and security persist, say UN experts and others.
The United States military, which leads the US coalition against ISIS, has funded measures to bolster security and ease overcrowding for some of the prisons, according to Chia Kurd, media, and US government reports. However, the measures appear to have done little to bring the prisons in compliance with minimum detention standards. Moreover, neither the US nor other members of the international community, including countries with nationals detained in northeast Syria, have funded any measures to provide the prisoners with due process, Chia Kurd said.
The international coalition against ISIS also reportedly plans to fund construction of additional detention centers for women suspects, as well as a 500-bed “rehabilitation center” for older boys. The United Kingdom, another key coalition member, is reportedly funding a project to double the capacity of one of the prisons, in Hasakah, from 5,000 to 10,000 detainees. UK and US defense officials did not respond to requests for comment in the time provided.
“Improving horrific prison conditions does not change the fact that indefinite detention without judicial review is unlawful,” Tayler said. “Expanding prisons and locked rehabilitation centers to warehouse hundreds of children who never even chose to live under ISIS is unconscionable.”
Backed by a US-led coalition, regional fighters called the Syrian Democratic Forces rounded up tens of thousands of ISIS suspects and family members during the fall of Baghouz, then the last ISIS stand in Syria, during a weeks-long battle that ended March 23, 2019. The Syrian Democratic Forces are still holding nearly 63,400 of the family members, nearly all of them women and children, in two locked, heavily guarded, open-air camps encircled by barbed wire. Roughly 20,000 are from Syria, 31,000 from neighboring Iraq, and nearly 12,000 others – 8,000 children and 4,000 women – are from almost 60 other countries. Conditions for the non-Iraqi foreigners, who are kept in special annexes, are particularly dire.
The Syrian Democratic Forces are also holding about 10,000 men as well as at least 700 boys of all nationalities, most ages 14 to 17 in 14, overcrowded, makeshift prisons for ISIS suspects, Chia Kurd said. Prison conditions “do not meet minimum standards,” he said, blaming scarce international aid for the abusive conditions. Human Rights Watch in 2019 and 2020 documented the inhumane conditions in some of these prisons.
In al-Hol and Roj, the locked camps for family members, more than 90 percent of children are under age 12 and more than half under 5, aid groups say. Syrians and Iraqis in the camps have relative freedom, including the ability to leave and return to the camps. During multiple visits to the two camps from 2017 to 2019, Human Rights Watch documented conditions in the foreigners’ annexes that amounted to cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment. Combined with the indefinite and arbitrary nature of detention, these conditions may also amount to torture when they deliberately inflict serious physical or mental harm on a detainee. Since then, detainees, family members, civil society representatives, and aid workers told Human Rights Watch, conditions have deteriorated further along with detainees’ despair.
“You can feel that people are giving up on the outside world, they are so desperate you meet a wall of hopelessness,” said Natascha Rée Mikkelsen, founder of Repatriate the Children-Denmark, who has visited the camps several times, including in February. “And the young children, some of them have diarrhea all the time and they are so skinny and so small. They just have this look like they are locked up. They have nothing to do and they know nothing about their future.”
Detainees and others interviewed by Human Rights Watch complained of contaminated water, overflowing latrines, shortages of fresh food and diapers, tents leaking or catching fire, rampant disease, insufficient medical care, and almost no schooling for children or counseling for a severely traumatized population.
While conditions are somewhat better in Roj than in the larger camp, al-Hol, detainees and family members described harsh conditions there as well. Three relatives, a civil society member and two detainees said noxious fumes from adjacent oil fields were causing asthma, deep coughs, and lung inflammations. One mother texted of being terrified by the lack of medicine for her child, by guards threatening to cut detainees’ clothes if they were not “short and colorful,” and of the desert winds that flipped over her tent at night:
Honestly I have ptsd [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] from the camps more than IS territory (even though I am traumatized from that lifestyle). … I would hold my daughter tight and stay alert all night watching the tent as it was about to collapse onto us at any moment. And it did actually happen many times.
In mid-March, said a Western European man whose grandchildren are in the camps, a small group of children no older than 6 crossed an internal camp fence to pick dandelions just on the other side. “The camp guards saw them, caught them, and beat them severely,” he said. “The children didn’t decide to be there, they don’t deserve to live like this in such terrible conditions.”
Two relatives described detainees waiting hours to access a shared phone that they could only use for seconds. Communication in one section for foreigners in Roj is limited to messages of less than a minute every 8 to 10 days, compounding detainees’ isolation, one relative said.
According to humanitarian groups and the UN Office of Counterterrorism, more than 700 detainees in al-Hol and Roj – at least half of them children – have died in the past two years. Several were killed by detainees in al-Hol who remain loyal to ISIS, while others died in crossfire between guards and detainees or from lack of medical care, unsanitary conditions, and accidents such as tent fires.
At least 29 people were killed in al-Hol camp alone in January and February 2021 including seven children. “The people who work there feel more and more scared of the situation, as if they have no control,” Mikkelsen said. “You have the feeling that any time you could be killed.”
In text messages relayed to Human Rights Watch, one woman in Roj described a fire breaking out in a tent housing two children whom guards left in the camp while jailing their mother for having a cellphone. The woman said it was one of three fires in Roj so far in 2021:
The 5 year old boy put the tent on fire and his 7 year old sister took him out from the burning tent. Two tent burned that day, it was terrible day cuz it took very long time to put the fire [out] since many fire extinguisher didn’t work and we didn’t know if there was more ppl trapped in the fire.
In February, 10 Frenchwomen in the camps went on a hunger strike to publicize their demand to stand trial at home. That same month, Pascale Descamps, a Frenchwoman whose 32-year-old daughter and four young grandchildren are held in Roj, began her own hunger strike to press the government to let her daughter leave to receive medical treatment for advanced colon cancer. Doctors in northeast Syria told her daughter that she needed “urgent” treatment but that the operation would be high-risk if performed locally, Descamps told Human Rights Watch. In December, the UN Committee Against Torture called on France to repatriate Descamps’ daughter for medical care but she remains in Roj. Descamps said that in intermittent audio messages, her daughter sounded desperate:
Every time my daughter talks to me, she starts crying. She tells me that she is getting worse, bleeding a lot, and getting weaker. She is like an animal in her tent, dying in front of her children. … I am not exonerating my daughter, but she has the right to a fair trial and to receive proper medical care given the seriousness of her health condition … I am also fighting for my grandchildren not to have to go through all this any longer. It is a stake in the heart to know that they see their mother so ill and to imagine that she could die there when France could repatriate her and her children. It’s like they have no rights anymore.”
Covid-19 is another threat. As of February 16, the UN had reported 8,537 cases of the virus in northeast Syria, but humanitarians warn that rates are vastly under-counted because of insufficient staff and supplies for extensive testing. At least 13 cases of Covid-19 had been reported in al-Hol and Roj as of December 2020. A greater outbreak could disproportionately harm camp and prison detainees as most are malnourished with severely limited access to medical services.
Detainees began receiving monthly handouts of masks and gloves in mid-2020 but they have to reuse them several times because of shortages, two women in Roj said.
Inhuman Prison Conditions
Despite some improvements, only one of the 14 makeshift prisons for male ISIS suspects is fit for the purpose, said a June 2020 US military report. The 10,000 men, most Syrian and Iraqi and 2,000 from other countries, are jammed into severely overcrowded cells with open latrines and poor ventilation. The prisons lack essential services including adequate medical care for festering wounds and infectious diseases including tuberculosis. Up to several hundred men have died in the prisons including one from Germany and another from the UK.
The 700 or more boys in the prisons are held separately from the men. About 400 are Syrian, 200 are Iraqi, and the rest come from several other countries, Chia Kurd said. The boys have access to outdoor courtyards, but have little access to education, recreation, and other essential services, he said.
Three well-informed sources speaking on condition of anonymity said that many of the boys in the prisons were taken from the camps where they lived with their mothers and siblings when they reached mid-adolescence and that some were as young as 12. Imprisoned Syrian boys can visit with families, but imprisoned foreign boys are not allowed visits with their mothers and siblings in the camps, Chia Kurd said. Between 100 and 110 more boys are living in a locked rehabilitation center. Services there, too, are “insufficient” due to a lack of aid, Chia Kurd said. The Autonomous Administration would like to transfer the boys in prisons to additional rehabilitation centers if foreign governments will build them, he said.
Chia Kurd said some of the boys were taken from the camps for families and elsewhere “for committing acts of violence” or for ISIS ideology, although Human Rights Watch received reports from local family support groups that at least some of the boys were taken simply because they had reached adolescence. UK-based Rights and Security International in 2020 reported that Syrian Democratic Forces forcibly disappeared dozens of boys from the camps.
The Kurdish-led coalition had prosecuted about 8,000 Syrians suspected of membership in ISIS and other armed groups in People’s Defense Courts as of early 2021, with about 4,000 more awaiting local prosecutions. The trials have been piecemeal with due process gaps and the Autonomous Administration has sought assistance from foreign governments to bring them in line with international standards. For two years, the Autonomous Administration has asked foreign governments to help it create a hybrid or international court to prosecute the detainees, Chia Kurd said. At times the regional authorities have proposed internationally supported local courts. But “the international community has not been cooperative with us,” he said.
Medical and other supplies are scarce in the camps and prisons, in part because of difficulties aid workers face in gaining access to the region. Russia has since January 2020 used and threatened its veto power at the UN Security Council to force the closure of three of the four vital border crossings into Syria that UN agencies had used to transport medicine and other aid into the country. Turkey and Turkish-backed forces have also repeatedly cut off water supplies to Autonomous Administration-held areas of northeast Syria, including al-Hol camp.
Representatives of four aid organizations said that these factors combined with mounting insecurity have forced many humanitarian organizations to suspend or scale back operations in northeast Syria.
Despite the deplorable conditions, only 25 of nearly 60 home counties have repatriated any of their nationals from northeast Syria, and repatriation operations fell from 29 in 2019 to 17 in 2020 and 3 in the first 10 weeks of 2021, according to Save the Children and Human Rights Watch tallies. Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Russia, and Uzbekistan have together brought home more than 1,200 of their citizens, about 85 percent of all returns. Repatriations by Western countries remain piecemeal. The UK, Australia, and Denmark have stripped citizenship of some nationals detained in northeast Syria, in some cases even when the revocation may leave them stateless.
A few countries, including Germany and Finland, have brought home some mothers with children. But others including Canada, the UK, and France have repatriated one or more children without their mothers and others, such as Sweden and Belgium, plan to do so. Systematic returns of children without their parents flout the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that countries should uphold the principle of family unity absent a professional assessment that separation “is necessary for the best interests of the child.” While governments obtain mothers’ written consent to take their children without them, Human Right Watch questions whether consent can be informed and voluntary for women indefinitely detained inside locked camps with no access to redress or counsel.
“If I had to choose again, I don’t know if I would have done it,” a Canadian mother in Roj said of her anguished decision to allow Canada to repatriate her 4-year-old daughter without her in March. “It’s the hardest sacrifice for a mother to make.”
Many governments contend that repatriations pose too much of a security risk. While governments have an obligation to keep people safe, security concerns do not obviate their parallel duty to uphold human rights, Human Rights Watch said. Moreover, as even the US-led coalition against ISIS argues, abandoning these detainees to indefinite confinement in dire conditions may pose a greater risk than bringing them home.
Men imprisoned as ISIS suspects in northeast Syria have repeatedly rioted and more than 100 have escaped to whereabouts unknown. With no way to leave legally, women are regularly paying traffickers to smuggle them and their children out of the locked camps, placing them at risk of being trafficked into forced labor and sexual exploitation, among other abuses, or of rejoining ISIS. Shunned by home countries, children may be vulnerable to recruitment by ISIS hardliners in the prisons and camps.
In contrast, repatriations or third-country transfers allow governments to conduct individual assessments of each returnee, monitor them as appropriate, and hold to account those who have committed serious international human rights crimes, a critical step in redress for thousands of ISIS victims.
Repatriations of the foreigners may also improve conditions for the Syrian ISIS suspects and family members whom the local authorities are also detaining in the camps and prisons. The Autonomous Administration has allowed more than 9,100 Syrians to return to their communities since 2019, including more than 2,600 under an amnesty it announced in October 2020, but thousands of others remain. As with the foreign detainees, the local authorities should release any Syrians held in degrading or inhuman conditions or without due process, and improve conditions for those who may not be able to return home because of risks that their communities may reject them or fears of returning to areas held by the government.
In January, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called repatriations by home countries, particularly of children, “an urgent and strategic counter-terrorism imperative.” The European Parliament and UNICEF have also called on member states to repatriate all children, taking into account the best interests of the child. The UN human rights commissioner, the UN counterterrorism chief, and 22 UN specialized human rights experts have called on home countries to repatriate their nationals as well. The 22 UN human rights experts noted that the “violence, exploitation, abuse and deprivation” suffered by foreign detainees in northeast Syria have resulted in deaths and in and of themselves “may well amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international law,” with no effective remedy.
International Legal Standards
Countries have a responsibility to take steps to protect their citizens when they face serious human rights violations, including loss of life and torture. This obligation can extend to nationals in foreign countries when reasonable action by their home governments’ actions can protect them from such harm. International human rights law also provides that everyone has the right to a nationality. Governments have an international legal obligation to provide access to nationality for all children born abroad to one of their nationals who would otherwise be stateless, as soon as possible. All individuals have the rights to adequate food, water, clothing, shelter, and mental and physical health, and fair trials. All children have the right to education.
Detaining people in conditions that amount to inhuman or degrading treatment is strictly prohibited under human rights law.
The Autonomous Administration’s indefinite detention of these foreigners without due process, including their right to appear before a judge to review the legality and necessity of their confinement, is arbitrary and unlawful. The detention of ISIS suspects’ family members, particularly the children but also women who are not being investigated for any crimes, also amounts to guilt by association and collective punishment, prohibited under international law.
The arbitrary detention and lack of reintegration support for these children violates international principles for children associated with armed groups, who are to be viewed primarily as victims. UN Security Council Resolution 2396 of 2017, which is binding on all member states, emphasizes the importance of assisting women and children associated with groups such as ISIS who may themselves be victims of terrorism, including through rehabilitation and reintegration.
Resolution 2396 also calls on member states to investigate and prosecute suspects for involvement with foreign terrorist groups if appropriate. Given the absence of any fair trial proceedings for foreigners detained in northeast Syria, investigations by home countries remain the only viable option at this time to provide redress to victims for any serious crimes these detainees may have committed.
Countries with Citizens Detained in Northeast Syria
Citizens of at least 58 countries are reported to be detained in camps and prisons in northeast Syria: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, China, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Indonesia, India, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Maldives, North Macedonia, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Somalia, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Yemen.